Monday, August 20, 2018

Syncopation


You know, sometimes people can be more honest than they intend to be. I heard a story a long time ago that illustrates that fact. A man was hiding something from his wife, but his secrecy backfired on him.

He handled alcohol well but drank way too much, often clandestinely. After work every day, for example, he went to Bill’s Bar and had one martini only. Bill and the regulars admired his restraint. What they didn’t know was that he then went to Sam’s Saloon on the next block and had a couple more. But even Sam’s clientele opined that the man knew how to drink moderately—two martinis and then home to the wife. But often he made a third stop at Tim’s Tavern for a drink or two. So, when he got home, he was sloshed. He handled it so well, though, that his wife didn’t notice. She just thought he was tired from working so hard.

“Would you like a drink, dear,” he would query upon his arrival home, though he certainly did not need one himself.

“Yes, I’ll have a little wine.”

He would go to the pantry, chug a little gin, pour her some wine and make a martini. His martinis were strong as he just waved the cork of a Vermouth bottle over a water glass of straight gin and dropped a few cubes of ice into it. The wife would sip her wine, while he smoked a big cigar, hid behind the evening paper and had a couple more drinks.

Well, this routine caught up with him and he began to feel bad all the time. She urged him to go to the doctor, a family friend, but he declined, until she finally made the appointment for him and insisted he go. Reluctantly, he showed up.

The doctor found nothing much physically wrong except that he could see and smell that the man was drinking too much. He advised him to cut booze out all together or at least to be moderate with it. All the man would say was, “Don’t tell my wife.” The doctor assured him he would not tell.

After the appointment he went to a couple of bars for fortification, wondering what he would tell his wife. On the way home, he passed a music store and saw some sheet music with the bold title, SYNCOPATION. That sounds like a disease, he thought.

“What did the doctor say,” his wife wanted to know as he brought in the evening drinks.

“You know how these doctors are, dear, you can’t tell much about what they say.”

“But did he name your problem. Did he diagnose anything?”

He lit a cigar and hid behind the paper, but she kept up the interrogation.

At length, after a few pulls on his martini, he said, “I have syncopation, dear, and I will just have to live with it. There is not much chance I will get any better.”

She looked it up and the first definition was, “Staggering unevenly from bar to bar.”

He was more honest than he intended to be.

 

Monday, August 13, 2018

Unwrapping Gifts


Amanda Wingfield of Tennessee Williams’ great play, The Glass Menagerie, worries that her son Tom will follow in the footsteps of her estranged husband. Mr. Wingfield worked for the telephone company and fell in love with long distance, as she put it. s

At dinner one night, Amanda talks to her son about man’s higher nature, but Tom counters by saying man is by instinct a hunter and a lover. Amanda cannot abide this worldview and rebukes Tom about his ravenous way of dining. “Chew, chew,” she admonishes, along with counsel as to how he should put cream in his coffee; he prefers it black. Finally, Tom blows up and says, “Mother, I have not enjoyed a single bite of this dinner because of your constant advice as to how to eat it.” Amanda is very much offended by this remark and stops speaking to her son, at least temporarily.

This conflict defines a theme of the play: one must change the changeable and accept the unchangeable. It is as if Williams had part of that famous AA prayer in mind: help me change the things I can and accept the things I cannot. Tom thinks he finds a way of escape from the heavy responsibilities of looking after his domineering mother and delicate sister. At the end of the play, however, we find that Tom has not escaped anything. Profoundly emotional memories of his home life will not allow one iota of freedom from his past.

His sister, Laura, tries to escape into her collection of glass animals, her glass menagerie, but she, too, fails. She cannot overcome her mother’s disappointment that she is different from other girls. Laura has a defective leg that has set her apart all her life. A high school friend tries to tell her that it is merely a slight physical defect, but she does not buy that at all. Her attitude towards it has cost her not only romantic relationships, but a career as well. Business school made her too nervous, so she dropped out, much to the displeasure of her mother.

Williams asserts that even with the best of intentions, parents can place unwarranted pressure on their children. But, on the contrary, would Mozart have been Mozart if his father had left him alone? I doubt it. Would William Faulkner be a great writer without Phil Stone, his mentor and friend who guided his reading? Probably not. Would Leslie Lemke have been anything other than a human vegetable without a self-sacrificial mother? Absolutely not. So there has to be a balance, right?

Parents and teachers should achieve that balance by finding gifts in their wards and facilitating their unwrapping. Sometimes the unwrapping takes a lifetime, but it is a worthy endeavor. Jonathan Winters, the great comedian, joked that he failed clay class. “I could make a ball but I could not make a bunny,” he said. But his gift, as it was unwrapped, turned out not to be in sculpting but in humor. Many gave up on Leonardo Da Vinci because of his tendency to leave work unfinished. But in his apprenticeships, he learned to unwrap his gift of developing ideas in sketchbooks that did not require perfection. Then he was able to bring his best conceptions to fruition on canvas.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Oxymorons and the Verities


As you know, an oxymoron is a rhetorical device involving the juxtaposition of contradictory terms, such as “jumbo shrimp,” “act natural” or “deafening silence.” There is often humor in an oxymoron. For example, the word “sophomore” contains an oxymoron within itself as it combines the Greek words “sophos” and “moros,” meaning “wise fool.” I have taught a lot of sophomores in my day and they were not necessarily in their second year of study. And, interestingly, the word oxymoron itself is an oxymoron as it combines the Greek words meaning “keenly stupid,” two truly contradictory terms.

Most of us enjoy the ironic humor provided by oxymorons such as “honest politician,” but they can be chilling and disturbing, too. For example, is there anything honorable in the oxymoron “honor killing”? Also, is there anything merciful about “mercy killing”? All the words denoting universal Truth can be and are sometimes twisted by our human tendency to have things our way.

In his 1949 Nobel Prize speech, the great Southern writer, William Faulkner, gave a list of the old verities or truths of the human heart for the benefit of future writers. He tells them they are doomed to mediocrity if they do not write about these things: love, honor, pity, pride, compassion and sacrifice. We know that history, both literary and otherwise, is replete with examples of genuine love of the kind Faulkner specified, such as Romeo and Juliet, Dr. Zhivago and Lara, George H. W. and Barbara Bush and Billy and Ruth Graham. Of course, there are other kinds of admirable love as well, such as the love of friendship, love of neighbor and the more abstract love of mankind. But this same universal truth of love that motivates such good relationships can be perverted into cultism or even merely prurient indulgence.

The second word on Faulkner’s list, honor, can be perverted as well. In its name, we have read of merciless acts in wartime, not to mention the hideous murdering of one’s own child in the name of religion. Even pity can be the condescending kind that denotes feelings of superiority over those pitied. And, who has not witnessed the destructive nature of self-congratulatory pride?

As to Faulkner’s old verity or universal truth listed as compassion, it can and often is feigned. People will give money or lip service to avoid rubbing shoulders with those in need. Often the real need is for a personal touch, a word of encouragement, a hand up. A checkbook is easier to handle and requires no personal interaction.

But how does the last old truth on the list, that of sacrifice, get perverted? Moliere’s Tartuffe is perhaps literature’s greatest example of the perversion of the virtue of sacrifice. This ultimate hypocrite, who poses as a pious priest, pretends to give his last pennies to the poor, thus depriving himself of a living. He does so to find favor with a family whose home and possessions he plots to steal. The man is a walking oxymoron.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Uses of the Coda


The word “coda” designates the rounding out movement at the end of a formal dance. It is something like a parade of dancers. The term has morphed into literary usage, too. For example, the epigrammatic couplet at the end of a sonnet can be seen as a rounding out or restating of the theme of the poem—a coda. Some of the greatest storytellers employ the coda as it often becomes a surprise ending, as in O. Henry’s stories, or as it gives an ironic twist, as in most of William Faulkner’s masterpieces. The wonderfully ingenious Alice Walker also employed the technique in her stories.

I met Ms. Walker several years before the publication of The Color Purple. We were at an academic conference together in Atlanta. She was teaching at a prestigious university and had published a couple of volumes of poetry at the time. She was as charming as she was erudite and she had a rich gift of conversation. Later, when I read her short story, “Everyday Use,” I could hear her voice as I read and I couldn’t help but notice her tendency to end her work with an ironic coda.

The garrulous narrator of “Everyday Use” has a daughter, Dee, living in the big city and another, Maggie, still living with her in rural Georgia. Their home is a shack in a pasture, one they had to move to when fire destroyed their former dwelling place. Maggie was burned in the fire and suffered considerable disfigurement of the face and arms. Consequently, she is shy and reclusive, but is engaged to marry John Thomas from a neighboring farm.

Dee comes to visit with her man, Hakim, who utters a Muslim greeting when he arrives and will not eat the pork chops the mother has prepared. His religion forbids pork and he will not eat the collards. Dee, however, has no problem digging in. During the feast, she tells her mother and sister not to call her Dee any more, but to call her by her new name, Wangero. She does not want a name that a family who owned her people gave. Mother argues that she was named for Grandma Dee, and not for that family, but agrees to call her by her new name.

Wangero then says she wants her mother’s churn to adorn her apartment alcove, an antique butter dish and the quilts Grandma hand-stitched. She said those beautiful quilts should be displayed; they were not for everyday use. Rather, she considered them works of art. Mother, however, said Grandma Dee wanted Maggie to have the quilts when she married, which she was soon to do. Do protested that Maggie would probably put those lovely quilts to everyday use. But her mother was firm. She let the churn and the butter dish go, but Maggie got the quilts and Dee left with her acquisitions in a huff, saying, “Mother, you don’t know anything about your heritage.” See what I mean about a coda? That is definitely an ironic twist; the mother is the one who did, indeed, know and honor her heritage. Wangero did not.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Fuzzy


Bobby Joe, a blue heeler mix, was the first dog I loved. He was as good with little humans as he was at rabbit hunting. We spent a lot of time hanging out together. He liked to put his head on my chest when I watched the clouds. Once when my big brother Stanley and Bobby Joe were out hunting early in the morning, the dog got his hide caught on some barbed wire and suffered a significant rip. I remember sympathizing with him as Stanley sewed his skin back together with needle and thread from Mother’s sewing basket. I whined in unison with Bobby Joe and even kind of felt the stitches.

My second dog friend was Fuzzy, a Spitz mix someone had left in a brown paper grocery sack beside the road with two of his tiny littermates. When the neighbor who found the animals brought them by our house to show them to us, she gave me first choice. I picked one that resembled my panda Teddy bear sleeping companion. In fact, I wanted to name him Teddy Bear Ford, but my just-older brother Curtis convinced me that was a dumb name for a dog. He suggested “Fuzzy.” I resisted a little, but we compromised. His full name was Fuzzy Teddy Bear Ford. Of course, he went by “Fuzzy,” though. You could yell “Teddy Bear” all day long and he would continue to doze in the shade. But just whisper “Fuzzy” and his tail would wag and he would join your company.

Fuzzy became my shadow. When we would walk along the road, he would get between the traffic and me and push me towards the shoulder when a car came. He followed me to elementary school every day until fourth grade, when I was assigned to teacher who was apparently not an animal lover. All the fourth graders and some others, even faculty, knew my dog and petted him at recess and before and after school. But, out of the blue, my teacher called the dog catcher on him one morning and I saw them arrive and lure Fuzzy into their rolling prison of a truck. Without asking permission, I got up from my desk and went out and told the dog catcher he was my dog. “Well, son, we got a call on him from your teacher. Your folks will have to pick him up at the pound and make sure he has all his shots.” He was a friendly man and I could tell he did not want to take my dog away.

I was in trouble for leaving the class anyway, so I just walked on into the principal’s office and used the phone. I called Mother at her work. She assured me that she and Pop would bail Fuzzy out and for me not to worry and go back to class. I did so. All my classmates had a very sympathetic look on their faces when I returned to class, but the teacher didn’t. I had to write, “I will ask permission to leave my desk,” a bunch of times. We got Fuzzy when I was three and he died when I was 16.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Dog Languages


The wise old man showed up for the Fourth on a 21-speed Mongoose Deception mountain bicycle with slick tires. He said he borrowed it from a friend in Standard Umpstead and rode it through the backroads to my house, quite a feat for a man of his age who has been in and out of what he calls “rest homes.”

He was talkative, as ever, and shared the following with a straight face. At first, I thought he was serious and that his cheese had finally slipped plumb off his cracker. But less than half way through, I saw the twinkle and knew it was a joke. These are his words:

“Dan, I have a friend named Dr. Lee Ho who is a world-class psycho-linguist up at Brandeis. We visited by Skype recently and he told me he had discovered the key to dog languages through understanding their inevitable personalities by body type.

“The reason you don’t hear much barking in a vet’s waiting room is that dogs simply do not understand each other. Dialects specialize into distinct language groups in a distance of less than eight miles. The phrase, ‘bicycle riders approach,’ may be woof-arrgh-wowwow-woof here on highway 195. Four miles down the road, the phrase may be Agga-agga-wooboo-woof. As you can hear, this is much more than elision in the same language, but whole new phonemes have developed.”

“Sir,” I queried, “what does this have to do with body types?”

“Everything, Dan. According to Professor Ho, who is a strong bicyclist himself, when a mesomorphic dog, that is a Doberman, German Shepherd or Rottweiler come out barking as you ride by, they say, ‘Get away from my property or I will send you to the emergency room for stitches.’ This sentence is fairly consistent from community to community, but expressed very differently, as in the phrase I just illustrated. The ideal response from a bicyclist is to spin the crank as rapidly as possible yelling, ‘No, dog!’

Similarly, if viscerotonic dogs chase you, that is, any variety of pet hound not used for hunting—the Basset, the Beagle, the Blue-Heeler—they are saying, ‘Hey, rolling human, ride on away from my driveway. My master likes for me to be a watch dog and I will just trot along beside you and yodel for a moment in case she’s watching, if you don’t mind.’ The best response, according to Ho, is to yell, ‘supper time,’ and the animal will turn and lope back home.

“Finally, Dan, my friend at Brandeis says that by far the most dangerous dog for bicyclists is the little intellectual cerebrotonic. These are types such as the Poodle, the Cocker and the Chihuahua. These brain dominant animals are most often saying, ‘You better get out of here you wheeled goon or I will trick you into crashing and nip you in the bud.’ Ho says the ideal response is to learn the little canine’s name if and when the owner calls him, her or it back. Then the cyclist can call out the name. The dog will usually sit down at that moment with tilted head and wonder where y’all made acquaintance.”

Monday, June 18, 2018

Everything for the Song


Years ago, Jean Nichols published a short poem in an issue of Saturday Evening Post that was so true that it stuck with me: “Why couldn’t I have known it all along? Nothing for the singer, everything for the song.” That little epigram is another way of saying that artists of any stripe are not as important as the works they produce. That sentiment played right into my approach to literary analysis known as the New Criticism, a system developed by the Southern Agrarians in 1939. Even though the methodology is not exactly new, it has become a venerable approach to studying literary works without regard to the author’s biography. New Criticism looks at the work itself in all its intricacy, analyzing how the parts work together to form the transference of artistic perceptions.

So, because of that analytical bent, I did not put much stock in the life of William Faulkner, though I published a lot of scholarly writings about his novels after having produced my doctoral dissertation about his work. But the life of the Mississippi genius is fascinating to say the least.

During my career, I made friends with Jimmy Faulkner, William’s nephew who lived with his famous uncle. Jimmy related a lot of anecdotes about the writer’s life that are interesting in themselves, though they have little bearing on the novels. I want to relate one of Jimmy’s stories here that was affirmed by Hollywood director Howard Hawks on a biographical film on PBS entitled A Life on Paper.

Hawks read a Faulkner short story in a magazine and thought it would be the foundation of a good movie. He wrote Faulkner there in Mississippi and sent him a plane ticket, explaining that he was interested in making the film. Hawks said a week or so later, his doorbell rang there in Beverly Hills. When he opened it, he found a little man smoking a big pipe who said in treble, I’m William Faulkner. Hawks responded by saying, “I’m Howard Hawks.” Faulkner replied, “I read it on the check.”

After they were comfortably seated in the den, Hawks said he himself did all the talking and was irritated that Faulkner kept silent. After 45 minutes, Faulkner got up to leave. “Where are you going,” Hawks asked. “Well, you wanted me to write it didn’t you?” Hawks said yes but that he would like to get to know him a little bit and offered him a drink. That was a mistake, because he got to know the author and his propensity for intoxication all too well. They spent three days on a tear. But a few days later, Hawks said, Faulkner showed up at his door with a perfect film script and Faulkner became a screen writer for a long season.

Hawks said later he took Faulkner and Clark Gable hunting. Gable asked Faulkner what living writers he would recommend for him to read. Faulkner said, “John Dos Passos, Thomas Mann and me.” Gable said, “Oh, Mr. Faulkner, do you write?” Faulkner replied, “Yes, Mr. Gable, what do you do?”

Nothing for the singer. Everything for the song.